When Chuck asked, "Would you like to go sailing?" I barely hesitated, even though we had met only the day before. But he commented on having sailed his own 19-footer and now would like to try a catamaran, the race car of sailboats. And I had always wanted to sail -- just the splash of the sea below and the crack of sail above.
With his understanding that I knew nothing of sailing, I accepted. So if the weather cooperated the next day, we'd skim the mirror of Rehoboth Bay.
At ten the next morning, we pushed the Prindle 16 into the shallows and hopped on the blue plastic, taut between the pontoons. Drifting slowly from the shore, Chuck experimented with the ropes controlling the blue-yellow-green-striped mainsail and the ballooning smaller jib. I manned the rudder stick.
Chuck maneuvered the ropes so that the sails caught the wind. And we flew. I could not believe how fast we moved. The arcing spray tingled, the droplets prisms of exploding colors. As the wind's velocity varied, we raced and coasted. Then a stronger gust billowed the mainsail, pulling it over, tilting the pontoon I sat on almost parallel above the other. I held my breath for what seemed like minutes, leaned backward to balance the slant; after a terrifying, exhilarating moment, the cat righted.
For a short while we skimmed more slowly. Chuck and I exclaimed that the cat certainly lived up to its reputation, but I, who would ride the Loch Ness Monster time after time, wanted more control. Before we could determine any corrective measures, a gust caught the sail and this time over we tumbled.
From my perch, I fell through a tangle of ropes. I bobbed to the surface, thrashing at the coils twisted around my right thigh and both arms. Choking, spitting salt water, I grabbed the slick pontoon resting in the water, its twin horizontal above. Chuck asked if I was all right. "Yes," I gasped, grateful for the lifejacket he'd insisted we wear.
Now, how to raise the mast and right the cat? Chuck climbed to the upper hull and tried to shift his weight to elevate the mainsail as I tugged in concert at the lower pontoon. But the weight of the water-filled sail defeated us. Chuck then tried to lift the mast to reduce the water in the sail. No success.
We decided to make ourselves as comfortable as possible sitting on the side of the lower hull awaiting help or drifting to a shallow area where we might be able to right the craft. The inactivity gave me a chance to look at my arms, which had begun to hurt. My left showed only one bruise, but on my right, black welts swelled, one of them streaked with blood. The salt water dried, leaving my skin scratchy and sticky.
To pass time as well as squelch the possible panic within me, Chuck talked first of his previous experiences in sailing. I eyed the blue water tower in the distance, next to my rental house. It seemed so close, so reassuring. But we were inching in the other direction, south toward the contemporary townhouses, their rooftops like staircases to the Delaware shoreline. We drifted for more than an hour. Fishermen in their dinghies and powerboats failed to recognize our plight.
When we finally discovered through periodic checks that we could touch bottom, Chuck and I pushed, he back at the mast, I forward at the lower pontoon. We slowly maneuvered to the nearest shore, its insects now materializing as family picnickers. Chuck waded ashore to get a ride back to the marina for help as I stayed with our reclining beauty. Determined to get some benefit from the day, I shed my lifejacket and white T-shirt -- now tinged pink where my wine-colored bathing suit had run. I winced as the fabric brushed my abrasions. But at least I could catch some rays. Before I could get in position, to my surprise I saw Chuck returning. With information about a righting rope and with assistance of the man who had told him of its existence, we righted the cat.
We took off but the wind wasn't sending us toward the marina. Chuck tried a zig-zag course, manipulating rudders and jib. But our racer was now sluggish, and we angled slowly across the bay in the opposite direction. The right pontoon rode low in the water, forcing Chuck to join me on the left hull. He sat as far forward as possible, with me directly behind him. Every time we moved toward the other hull it started to sink, threatening another capsize. This strange behavior of the catamaran convinced us that the pontoon was taking on water.
With every movement endangering the stability of the craft, we sat becalmed. In fact, we seemed to be losing ground. A crab- pot stake marked our few feet forward, then our comparable retreat. Flotsam, we bobbed for hours. A seagull, perched on the stake like a weathervane, ignored us. No spray, no breeze alleviated the boredom. We eyed the scattered rooftops along the shore. Our conversation drifted as aimlessly as our catamaran.
Then we sensed a slight breeze, and in trying to take advantage of it, we capsized again. This time I at least escaped the entangling ropes. But if I were better off physically, I was mentally defeated. I had never been scared, but now I was just exhausted. This time one pontoon now evidently probed the bay's bottom, the other jutting outward at a weird angle. We could not budge the cat, now stuck in the silt at the bottom.
With Chuck's help I climbed to the mast and sat, scanning the bay. With the boat in this position, the other boaters would not question our situation. We were clearly in trouble. Immediately I spotted a powerboat coming in our direction. I waved my arms, Chuck his jacket; the hull reared its distress.
The young couple, out for an afternoon's crabbing, circled the cat cautiously, wary of catching dangling ropes in the propeller. When it was close enough, I climbed the extended ladder and lurched, dazed, for a secure seat. Chuck followed, throwing me my soggy sweat shirt. Offered a beer, we demurred. All we wanted was to get back to the marina.
We waded in (the water was too shallow for our rescuer's props), and a voice yelled, "Were you with the Prindle 16?" We nodded and trudged wearily to shore.
After we described our mishaps, the marina operator -- not the individual from whom we had rented our craft -- threatened us with "abandoning a vessel at sea." This he explained made us liable for a $3,200 vessel. He informed us further that we could not leave the marina until the cat was returned and/or its damage estimated. Somehow this reception was not what I'd expected. I wondered where I would get $1,600.
When Chuck got his billfold and my purse with my watch from the car, I checked the time -- 3:30. Almost six hours since we had set out. We had to wait two more hours. The Coast Guard had reported the sighting of the cat, giving a specific location instead of the vague area to which we had pointed. Although we hadn't eaten all day, I was not hungry; but now that I was on solid ground, the beer tasted good.
As we slouched on benches outside the marina's restaurant, sunburnt boaters threw us sideways, questioning glances.
Eventually the rainbow sail we thought was "ours" appeared, towed by a small powerboat. We watched as it neared, one pontoon battling the water. When they pulled it up on the sand, Chuck walked over to see if we could now leave. It had been a long day. But not until the teenager who had rented the cat to us returned to assess a before-and-after condition could we find showers and unsalted clothes. Finally he appeared and checked the Prindle to report no damage. As we left, he commented, "I just picked up some tubes of caulking today. You know, they don't usually start leaking this soon." We just looked at one another and sighed.
As Chuck drove out of the parking lot, he asked, "Will you ever try sailing again?" I leaned back and gently touched my tender right forearm. "Probably, but not tomorrow. But I'll definitely have my own tube of caulking!"